John Cassian


I have been listening to the Conferences of Saint John Cassian, which I found in audio form here (incomplete and the NPNF edition, but worthwhile to listen to while bookbinding). I was recently given the Ramsey translation of both the Conferences and the Institutes (a wonderful gift!) and have also been reading Simon Cashmore’s Master’s thesis on Saint John Cassian (yes, the spirituality language jars a bit, but I am grateful that a South African is taking him seriously!) and so have been thinking that I should really get back to paying some attention to him. But, time and energy being what they are, listening while I work is easier to manage than reading, and the Conferences tend to lend themselves to that.

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of  Julia Hayes

Icon of Saint Moses the Ethiopian by the hand of Julia Hayes

Anyway, as I listened to the first two conferences, my thoughts turned to Abba Moses, or Saint Moses the Ethiopian, who is quoted extensively. Although I know that this is Cassian’s later reworking and re-presenting of the teaching that he found among the Desert Fathers, it struck me that it is difficult to deny that Saint Moses plays a crucial role in them. His teaching in the first two conferences on the goal and end of the monk and on the importance of discretion would go on to shape centuries of monastic understanding and Christian practice in both East and West.

I have written before on the infuriating cluelessness that many contemporary South African Christians seem to have about the history of African Christianity. And this now strikes me even more. While there are some – rather challenging – sayings of Saint Moses in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I have quoted previously, they belong to a particular genre and are perhaps easy to overlook. But when I was suddenly struck by the central role that he plays in the Conferences, I couldn’t help wondering that he has not received more attention from those interested in African Christianity and “African theology.”

Of course, part of the explanation for this may be that Saint John Cassian was himself viewed as suspect in the West after his run-in with Saint Augustine, and his legacy was largely kept alive in Benedictine monasteries. (Actually, as this post shows, he was once considerably more influential than he later became). But what suddenly struck me while I was binding was that this process of ignoring of Saint John Cassian’s works has not only deprived Western Christians of one of the foremost early teachers on Christian life, but it has also deprived African Christians of access to the rather centrally important teaching that he conveys of one of the leading lights of the African Church, namely, Saint Moses the Ethiopian.

Thomas, when he touched the flesh, believed that he had touched God, saying, “My Lord and my God.” For they all confessed but one Christ, so as not to make him two. Do you therefore believe him? And do you believe in such a way that Jesus Christ, the Lord of all, both Only Begotten and firstborn, is both creator of all things and preserver of humanity and that the same person is framer of the whole world and afterward redeemer of humankind?

John Cassian, On the Incarnation of the Lord against Nestorius 6.19, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky (ed), John 11-21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVb (InterVarsity Press, 200) 372-373.

With good reason, then, we are accustomed to have sacred meetings in churches on the eighth day. And, to adopt the language of allegory, as the idea necessarily demands, we indeed close the doors, but Christ still visits us and appears to us all, both invisibly as God and visibly in the body. He allows us to touch his holy flesh and gives it to us. For through the grace of God we are admitted to partake of the blessed Eucharist, receiving Christ into our hands, to the intent that we may firmly believe that he did in truth raise up the temple of his body. … Participation in the divine mysteries, in addition to filling us with divine blessedness, is a true confession and memorial of Christ’s dying and rising again for us and for our sake. Let us, therefore, after touching Christ’s body, avoid all unbelief in him as utter ruin and rather be found well grounded in the full assurance of faith.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel of John 12.I, quoted in Joel C. Elowsky (ed), John 11-21, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IVb (InterVarsity Press, 200) 369.

A blessed Pascha to all celebrating it today, and a blessed end of the Octave to the rest of us! (I’ve given up trying to work out precisely who follows what calendar by now).

If the devil has been driven out and sin no longer reigns, then the kingdom of God is established in us. As it is written in the Gospel, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation, nor will they say, ‘Lo, here,’ or ‘Lo, there.’ Truly I say to you that the kingdom of God is within you.” The only thing that can be “within us” is knowledge or ignorance of the truth and the affection for righteousness or sin by which we prepare our hearts to be a kingdom of Christ or the devil. St. Paul described the nature of this kingdom in this way: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” If the kingdom of God is within us and is righteousness, peace and joy, then someone that remains in these is surely within the kingdom of God. Someone that remains in unrighteousness, conflict and the melancholy that kills the life of the spirit is already a citizen of the devil’s kingdom, of hell and of death. These are the signs whether it is God’s kingdom or the devil’s.

John Cassian, Conference 13, quoted in Arthur A Just (ed), Luke, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament III, (Intervarsity Press, 2003) 271.

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A man is not freed from the pleasure of sin’s working until he truly abhors the cause of sin with his whole heart. This is the fiercest struggle, the struggle that withstands a man unto blood, wherein his free will is tested as to the unity for the love of the virtues. This is the power which some call enticement and pitched battle, and by the scent of it the wretched soul is enfeebled because of the intense provocation which lies therein. This is the mighty power of sin by which the enemy is wont to trouble the souls of the chaste and to compel the pure movements [of their souls] to experience what they had never in any wise experienced. It is here that we manifest our patience, my beloved brethren, our struggle and our zeal. For this is the time of unseen contest, in which it is said that the monastic order always excels. If the upright intellect does not securely guard itself, it will speedily be confounded by its encounter with this warfare.

St. Isaac the Syrian,The Ascetical Homilies of Saint Isaac the Syrian (I, 32), translated by the Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston, 1984. p. 150